I have two daughters at school in Orange and a farm in Mudgee. My time is fairly evenly divided between the two. Conversations with other parents at sporting and other occasions are convivial, politics as a topic is generally absent or discussed only in the broadest of terms. Not over the past few weeks.
As the likely effects of the budget measures begin to sink in conversations at netball have an increasingly critical and hard edge and this from people normally reserved and slow to judge. My fellow parents are doctors, nurses, school teachers, engineers, lawyers, business people, farmers and the like. Middle Australia.
Distance is money in rural Australia, so increasing the price of fuel has an immediate and negative impact. Education and health are primary concerns. Rural Middle Australia is aspirational in the broadest sense. There is anger at the costs being imposed on tertiary education. Country parents already pay a premium to help their children through higher education. Country kids can’t live at home and attend university.
There is anger at cuts to the CSIRO and to funding scientific research, particularly in agriculture. There is a perception, as with Rudd and Gillard before him, that the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has little understanding of the issues facing rural Australia. Little slack is cut for claims of building new rural infrastructure.
But it wasn’t by any means all about them. There was concern at the removal of the safety net and the right to sustenance and dignity from the least advantaged and disabled in the rural community where jobs, training and care are hard to access and require private transport.
There is anger that Abbott has moved so fast to engineer change, particularly when the message of crisis has failed to resonate. Rural Australians are not so easily spooked or corralled as Canberra advisers seem to believe of the broader community. If you want crisis try managing a farm or business through extended drought.
They don’t like the way Abbott and Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, project themselves. Pyne is seen as strange and Abbott as less than credible. Lying was never going to sit well with the conservative middle class. It is a question of character.
Both federal members in the electorates that I move between are seen as time servers and the National Party as ineffective in arguing the case and getting positive outcomes for rural Australians. The budget has weakened the grip of the Nationals in rural Australia. There seems to be a general feeling that Malcolm Turnbull would provide more coherent leadership and project a better image of Australia than Abbott.
Worryingly, from the Abbott government’s point of view, the concerned rural middle class seem to have made their minds up about Abbott and his budget. Spin is unlikely to change those impressions, the damage is done.
If other parts of middle Australia have come to a similar conclusion Abbott has a problem. His brand is damaged, perhaps irreparably.
The unanswered question is where is Abbott taking us? What are the government’s plans for the future beyond slash and burn? When we reach the Elysium of a balanced budget, what then?
Those voters perceived to have supported the Labor Party are being punished; the problem for Abbott is he is punishing many of those in his own support base as well as the swinging voters he needs to get re-elected. Can he do it, or is he One Term Tony. He might get another term, but that will be all. On the other hand Turnbull as leader would get two or three terms, all other things being equal.
But first he has to throw off the yoke of the right wing nutters, many of them on Abbott’s front bench.
Not even Shortens lack of conviction might be enough to keep Abbott in power. Rural Australia might see again the rise of Independents and the Greens and Palmer can be expected to increase their votes. However a galvanised Turnbull might keep them at bay.
Even the much vaunted ‘success’ of turned back boats might come to haunt an over inflated Morrison. As the number of asylum seekers builds on Indonesia, Australia can expect to be asked to take some.
A distinguished, highly educated former senior diplomat and colleague of mine said to me recently that he believes that Abbott really doesn’t understand very much at all. That he hasn’t a clue about infrastructure, that he thinks in sound bites and that he believes in nothing except maintaining his hold on power, oh yes, and that he lacked maturity.
The Senate may save Abbott in the short term from further backlash at the excesses of his budget, but it will not save Abbott in the longer term from the ravages of his personality and make up.
As he goes about dumbing down the country and humiliating the disadvantaged, he is furthering the gap between the haves and have nots, a dangerous agenda for the future social and economic well being of the nation. He is mistaken if he thinks he can buy back the concerned middle class with tax cuts. That will not be enough to get them swinging.
Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.